Pyongyang, North Korea: A destination to which a seasoned business traveler doesn’t often relate. Airline lounges, frequent flyer miles, hotel points, car rentals? Not here.
As a dedicated traveler, I do anything to collect miles and redeem them for free flights or hotel nights, to get upgraded to business class, and to live it up in a two-story suite at my favorite hotel after paying the regular rate.
That was until I had the chance to take a trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea—aka the DPRK—where no points, miles, or any perk known to the civilized travel industry exists, and the regulations would make anyone shiver. Well, at least they made me shiver.
A Destination for Aviation Enthusiasts
I’m also a big aviation enthusiast. I love airplanes. Flying is more of a lifestyle than anything else to me. But mixing my passion with my ways of travel isn’t always a good marriage.
There are many like me out there: fierce avgeeks who constantly try to jump back in time and re-live the past by flying airliners that, in developed countries, would have been turned into soda cans over 20 years ago.
But North Korea doesn’t have the means to turn airplanes into cans. In fact, it doesn’t have the means to be considered ‘civilized’. Amid the world’s sanctions, fuel supply bans, and endless boycotts from the rest of the world, North Korea has to do what it can to stay in the air. Even if it is with Soviet airplanes from the 1960s.
And its national airline, Air Koryo, offers just that: an aviation that has ceased to exist.
Booking the prohibited
Why North Korea, then? Other than the idea of flying old, obsolescent Soviet era metal, the more I thought about the world’s most isolated country, the more I wanted to explore it. I had been mesmerized by recent DPRK news stories, and by how the country lives—and dies—for its leaders. Somehow, I had to see it firsthand.
That was when I came across the Juche Travel Services (JTS) tour organizer, which specializes in DPRK trips for aviation geeks, during which you can fly all of Air Koryo’s airplanes and experience bits and pieces of this mysterious country.
“The perfect combination for a quick, four-day, aviation-filled trip into isolation.”
I called the agency and reserved a spot for a little over US$2,200—all meals, transportation within North Korea, hotel accommodations, and seven Soviet-built aircraft joyrides included. The perfect combination for a quick, four-day, aviation-filled trip into isolation.
But my travel habits are always backed by a good travel insurance, which, in this case, was not part of the plan. JTS advised that my insurance provider cover an ‘emergency flight transfer’ from Pyongyang to Beijing in case something went wrong.
A disclaimer letter also warned me to carefully follow the tour guide’s instructions, to not take photos freely, and to comply with the country’s beliefs. It also stated that reporters, journalists, and South Koreans were not welcome. I’d probably fit the first two of the three categories.
With that, JTS provided assistance and obtained my DPRK tourist visa, as well as all bookings for the 75 aviation enthusiasts who had signed up for the tour, most of whom were repeaters, not first-timers like me.
“This is my third tour to the DPRK,” said an excited Servaas Verbrugge, a Dutchman who was clearly hyped for the Tupolev Tu-204 he was about to hop on at Beijing’s Capital Airport. “I love Soviet planes; so, every time I have the opportunity to fly one, I sign up for it.”
Verbrugge and many others came well equipped with professional cameras, lenses, and small notebooks to keep note of airplane registrations and every flight they would take.
I was surprised to see that 30% of the attendees were American citizens. Three of my American colleagues had decided to drop out weeks ahead of the trip because of the risks associated with being American and traveling into a country featured in the U.S. State Department’s no-go list. But the remaining Americans in our group didn’t seem to care. In fact, they were as curious and excited as I was.
“This is my 14th tour to North Korea” —Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy, one of the JTS tour guides, sees North Korea and its people with good eyes; a destination that’s perfect for those who love seeing something that’s decidedly different. “This is my 14th tour to North Korea,” he said at Air Koryo’s check-in counters in Beijing. “After so many times, I feel somehow responsible to the North Koreans, who get a terrible time in the media, but they are so kind and curious about the outside world.”
In fact, North Korea is the most isolated country in the world, without any type of connectivity for free use. As soon as we arrived in Pyongyang, all our mobile phones and networked computers proved useless. So we’d be, literally, unplugged.
The final schedule was well run and straightforward. After a quick briefing in Beijing, the organizers distributed visas and we passengers gathered at the assigned gate.
After arriving into Pyongyang, on Monday, we were to visit the city’s main attractions. Tuesday and Wednesday, travel on an exotic mix of Tupolevs, Ilyushins, and Antonovs, and take a unique ride on a DPRK Military Russian-built helicopter to the northern city of Hyangsan. There, we’d visit the International Friendship Exhibition before returning to Pyongyang for a subway ride and a farewell dinner on Thursday evening. We’d return to Beijing on Friday morning.
Welcome to the DPRK: The Prelude
My first impression of North Korea came in the form of disparity: our Pyongyang-bound Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-204 parked in Beijing right next to a brand-new, Seoul-bound Korean Air Boeing 777-300(ER). A dichotomy that would set the tone for what was about to come for the next five days.
Upon boarding our 2009-built aircraft, all 75 enthusiasts seemed skittish. Air Koryo’s impeccable cabin crew welcomed us on board with dry smiles. We obliged, sat, and quietly cherished the flight to Pyongyang on the airline’s sole international route service.
The aircraft was remarkably silent and stable—it is Air Koryo’s flagship. My first-ever ride on Russian metal. I was expecting something perhaps more robust and loud, but the ride was pleasant and utterly quiet.
Mid-flight, the infamous ‘Koryo Burger’ was served along with a few beverages of choice: water and juice. The burger patty, of questionable meat, was rather tasty and amusing. Flight Attendants seemed happy to serve us, albeit with extreme timidity.
The 1½-hour flight across the Yellow Sea passed rapidly, thanks to the eccentric propaganda in-flight video, shown on the drop-down screens of the Tupolev, portraying what it called the ‘grandiose’ accomplishments of North Korea’s leaders and of its impetuous army.
Business class passengers got a full meal and a complimentary copy of the Pyongyang Times, the country’s English-language newspaper, which featured wall-to-wall government-related news and accomplishments.
The approach into clear, unpolluted Pyongyang was daunting: dirt roads, endless miles of open fields, and just a handful of rustic housing developments; quite the opposite of what we saw in overpopulated Beijing. But impoverishment was evident.
However, as we touched down on the runway, a brand-new, prodigious airport building came into sight. Though entirely devoid of revenue flights and passengers, Pyongyang’s luxurious international airport is open for business.
“Why an empty airport needs multiple, staffed stores and kiosks, and several functioning restaurants is unclear to me,” said Jamie Baker, a New York-based airline analyst with a distinct taste for Russian planes.
The airport was a true statement of disparity: a technology marvel in the midst of open, secluded fields.
After we had deplaned through a shiny glass jetway, uniformed guards greeted us with forced smiles. Passport control was a breeze, and our bags were delivered in a heartbeat. My anxiety proved to be uncalled for, as the process proved to be much easier than coming into Miami from any international destination.
“I was ordered to open my iPad, and the guard went straight to my photos and videos.”
But then came customs clearance. I was ordered to open my iPad, and the guard went straight to my photos and videos. He checked each and every image I had, diligently browsed my documents folder—and then let me go. Nerve-racking, but ultimately innocuous.
A coerced introduction to North Korea
Leaving the airport toward the city in four coach buses allowed us to grasp the essence of Pyongyang. “It is a city untouched by crime or pollution,” said Baker, just minutes after our arrival.
We saw numerous building blocks and citizens walking in the middle of the street. Countless people were impeccably dressed in military uniforms or neat dresses. The weather was clear, the atmosphere orderly.
The only ‘real-world’ cars we could see were black, government Mercedes-Benz sedans; the rest, none of us had never seen before.
Except for a few, curious people waving and nervously smiling at us, most people walking along the street paid no attention to our convoy.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So when in Korea, do as the Koreans do.”
On our way downtown, our tour guides quickly set the tone for the rest of the trip. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. So when in Korea, do as the Koreans do,” our lead tour guide said. An awkward silence followed. The words we heard the most were, “No photos please.”
We then reached the city center, where the most venerated monument to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il sits on top of Mansu Hill—a place as amazing, in its own way, as St. Peter’s Square in The Vatican or the Taj Mahal.
Our group was then pressured to purchase flowers, and to obediently bow before the imposing, 22-meter bronze statues of North Korea’s leaders. One of the attendees neglected to bow, and one of the tour guides insisted that he do so.
Already on a roll that involved showing off the city’s most spectacular locations, our guides drove us to Pyongyang’s ‘Modern City’, where only privileged professors, geniuses and over-achieving students are allowed to live. The whole development looks like something from the late-1990s, though, for the DPRK, it’s considered top-notch architecture.
It was time to experience the city’s famous Koryo Hotel, our home for the next four days. Rated five stars, the hotel breathes 1980s retro charm, with a majestic entrance hall and two towers, each with 45 floors.
Guides distributed electronic keys and we hopped on the equally dated elevators to the rooms. Mine was decently sized and fitted with used sandals, an inoperable fridge, and a wide view of central Pyongyang.
Our first dinner at the Koryo Hotel set the bar for all meals to come: low-nutrition, protein-deficient, fried, and vegetable abundant dishes. Not entirely inedible, but unappealing at best.
The biggest problem we encountered with food throughout the tour was to properly identify what we were eating. Its slimy, gooey and flavorless characteristics represented a true challenge for any foodie.
But what truly stood out was the locally crafted beer. It was cheap and filling.
Part Two: Flying Rampage in North Korea
In part two of this exclusive review, we’ll fly on Air Koryo’s vintage fleet of Soviet aircraft: Ilyushin 62, Tupolev Tu-134, Antonov An-148, Antonov An-24, Ilyushin Il-18, Ilyushin Il-76, and Tupolev Tu-154.